In India to promote his best-selling book, Harvard fellow Suraj Yengde has always appeared in a blue suit as a tribute to Ambedkar
How do you pair a suit with a ‘Dafro’ and cute socks? Yengde talks to Lounge about his carefully constructed visual identity
"The suit is a representation of something," says Suraj Yengde. The scholar and activist is the inaugural postdoctoral fellow at the Initiative for Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In his three years there, he has been pivotal in founding the Boston Study Group and starting a monthly B.R. Ambedkar lecture series.
Yengde is in India this month to promote his new book, Caste Matters, which his publisher, Penguin Random House India, confirms has sold upwards of 5,000 copies within a month of publication. In these interviews, panel discussions and talks, Yengde has almost always made an appearance in a blue suit. It is a tribute to Ambedkar, whose iconic blue three-piece was as much a political tool as it was a sartorial choice. But while Yengde is proud to wear his affiliation to Babasaheb, and his Dalit identity, on his sleeve, he’s uneasy about being called a “Dalit scholar" without other qualifiers to layer that identity. “We don’t call someone a Kayastha scholar or a Brahmin scholar in the media. Why must a Dalit scholar be just that…. I am many other things," he says.
For one, Yengde, 31, is a wild storyteller, peppering his conversation with tales from his childhood in a family of tailors at Nanded in Maharashtra (they were women’s tailors who were of “no use" for his fashion-inclined adolescence), to his brief time in Mumbai, then Birmingham, Johannesburg, and now Boston.
He is a jaunty dresser—his interest in adopting the suit was also inspired by professors at Harvard. In fact, his suit and Afro combination is a hat tip to his mentor, the renowned African-American philosopher Cornel West, whose Race Matters (1993) also seems to have inspired the title of his book. The suspenders, he tells us, are inspired by another Harvard luminary, Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Atrocities suffered by Dalit youth who dare to dress in white shirts or jeans or flash a pair of sunglasses are often reported in the media. The right to certain kinds of clothing and other forms of adornment has been linked inextricably with caste-based subjugation. Yengde speaks of Ambedkar’s instruction to the community, especially to women, to always dress well so no one can make them feel inferior—to use sharp clothing and cleanliness as markers to assert identity. There are parallels here to the African American movement where personal style—especially hair—is an integral element of social and economic expression. Yengde’s scholarship is devoted to drawing parallels between Black and Dalit movements and the way he wears his hair is not incidental.
The ability to dress well is emotionally loaded for a certain generation. “I gifted my uncle a Ralph Lauren suit. And he came to my book launch in Delhi all dressed up. When he wore it, he said, ‘Pehentein hain kapde Babasaheb ki tarah (We wear clothes like Babasaheb did)’. It was an extraordinary moment for him," he says, adding: “Gandhi could afford to give up his clothes because there was Ghanshyam Das Birla, who would be there to give them to him. Babasaheb didn’t have that.… His idea of style is part of the cosmopolitan outlook that Dalits have embraced. They are not conservative in their style, and neither am I. There’s a liberal way of looking at the world. Clothes express that. If you are conservative, you will stick to certain clothing patterns."
While on the subject of style, Yengde can move from the vocabulary of sociopolitical discourse to the extravagant gushing of a fashion Instagrammer. Given that he’s prone to carrying around suits, he has had the misfortune of losing a few in transit. One was left behind recently in the back of a Mumbai cab. “Oh, I still cry when I think of that," he says. Of this early purchase—a Hugo Boss bought for £900 (around ₹78,000) at London’s Oxford Street—he says, “It had a soft, grey shine that was so pleasing to the eyes…you wanted to touch and feel it." Another one was lost on a Tokyo-Mumbai flight. It was a “well-ventilated summer suit from Uniqlo". The day he’s meeting us at the Mint office, he’s wearing a Calvin Klein, pleased at the idea that America offers ample off-the-shelf varieties.
Even growing up in Nanded, when new clothes would surface only twice a year, on Diwali and Bhim Jayanti, Yengde was making bold choices. He speaks of a pair of newspaper-print pants with much affection. “My mum is a fan of (actor) Jeetendra. In the 1970s, he wore checked shirts, simple pants and looked like a good boy. He inspired the ‘Pyaarelal’ style, which became the name of the silhouettes of the trousers we wore. I flirted with that style for a long time."
Yengde’s Afro, which he styles in three different ways for our photographer, has a story of its own. “When I was growing up, I hated my hair. I would tell my mother that I have ugly, frizzy hair because of her. It was the time of silky-haired Salman Khan and John Abraham. Remember Tere Naam (2003)? I couldn’t see people who looked like me anywhere on screen, and I felt humiliated. I kept my hair short like the army guys," he says.
As a doctoral student in South Africa, his hair found friends. “Women loved it," he says. He began growing it, partly channelling Einstein, and partly because he now had black friends to tell him how to style it. “I was particular about not appropriating someone else’s narrative but they were very accepting, they called me ‘their’ guy," he says. It was later, at Harvard, that Henry Louis Gates Jr christened his style “Dafro", or the Dalit Afro.
The suit and Dafro have a third wheel— multicoloured wrist bands. Yengde also happens to be India’s first Dalit PhD holder from an African university (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg). And he had bought his first batch of bright bands from migrants selling them around his campus. Others were added along the way. There’s blue for the Dalit women’s struggle and black for Telangana.
Essentially, there is nothing in his attire that is not considered. His Ray-Bans, too, are customized, with his parents’ names on the inside rims. His visual identity is carefully constructed and edited to suit each life stage. A woven saffron band that he had acquired at some point was cut off by an Ambedkarite friend in London. It represented the “wrong" message.
His outrageous look isn’t appreciated in all quarters. “Even now, if I stand in the middle of the street holding my mother’s hand in Nanded, and we bump into someone she knows, she will let go of me," he says, laughing. On a more sombre note, the occasional ridicule and obsessive staring he has faced—more in India than the US—has made him acutely sensitive to women’s insecurities arising from being gazed at constantly. In Johannesburg, during a particularly colourful phase when he was wearing green trousers and a purple shirt, a professor had called him a Tamil hero. He thought of it as a compliment but realized later that it was meant as an insult.
As to why Yengde adopted clothing as a means of self-expression, he goes back to his life of modest means as a schoolboy in Nanded. He had nothing in common with his classmates. But consumer items were a leveller. He spent his pocket money obsessively buying Boomer Bubble Gum because they advertised a free walkie-talkie if you collected enough wrappers. Then he could be like “them". The walkie-talkie never arrived. He never became them.
We start talking about his chic socks, and realize they tell the story of his life. He was recently complimented after a stage event in Bengaluru. “You are talking about Dalit issues but you are wearing Paul Smith socks," a woman told him, smiling. “No, they are Banana Republic," he said. He knows the difference. After he got his degree from Birmingham, during a work stint at the UN, he had thought dressing well meant wearing his cleanest white socks. A kindly Italian woman, Maria, pulled him aside to say he could not pair tennis socks with a suit. It was a faux pas.
Dalits, Yengde points out, have always been told to dress in a way that makes them invisible. Brand Yengde is the opposite of that. Today, we can see his Paul Smith socks.